I was eighteen when the drinking started. It was 1981, and I was heading off into the Maine woods, under the huge deep green pines, to attend Bowdoin College. Behind me, in the dark living room in Minneapolis, my parents sat with their wine glasses like a queen and king overseeing a fading empire. I was shy and reserved, a reader, a Reece. I was far from the sad Southern town of my father’s family and the tattered, run-down north end of Hartford where my mother’s Lithuanian immigrant family had landed. My parents had invested much in me. They had, in my mother’s words, ‘jumped class’, and they banked now on an even greater success: me.
Pimples grew from my temples. I looked like I was about to rut and grow antlers. I was turning into a man who loved men, or at least a man who loved men and women, but men more. But I did not know how to be that kind of person in the world.
At the time no one really used the word ‘gay’ – not that I remember – only the clinical ‘homosexual’, which carried undertones of a disease that electric shock might undo. Only later in the decade some of the American states would begin to repeal their anti-sodomy laws. Homosexuality would be removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental disorders. But not yet.
Libidinous impulses surged inside of me. When I arrived in Brunswick Maine, the small town that houses Bowdoin College, I found my way into an old independent drugstore with high ceilings, creaking wood floors and no mirrors. It stocked Playgirl. There I discovered the golden buttocks of naked blonde farm boys who lolled on haystacks in barns in Louisiana. I couldn’t bring myself to buy a copy, because that would be admitting that I was homosexual to another person, the shopkeeper, so instead I shoplifted. I would buy extra tubes of toothpaste to make up for my theft. I wedged the glossy magazine against my midriff and my body throbbed against it with expectation. I would take the magazine like an animal with kill in its teeth back to a bathroom in the Economics building where I masturbated in a cave of shame – my body shaking like a washing machine. Then would come the horror and revulsion that would course through every fiber of my body. I’d throw the magazine away. I would pray to die.
I wanted to be like all the other boys. I wanted to be a part of something. I did not want to be different. And so I drank. I attended fraternity parties and drank Cape Coders, gin and tonics, kegs of beer. I found that with the aid of liquor I could chat with girls like every other boy around me. I could dance with them.
My first drink brought me to life. My soul opened in a way I had only experienced with poems and books up to that point. I doubt I would have used the word ‘soul’ then, but that part of me that was not flesh was alert and looking for clues. Booze, like poems, unlatched that. The next drink went down flawlessly. The ice, the charge, created an alchemical click inside. There was another drink and another. Suddenly everything that had been stuck was greased. I wasn’t bad after all. Liquor flowed through me and I leaned into my new nerve.
I sat hung-over in the back row of a course called ‘Religious Poets’. My brain felt like an aborted fetus pickled in the jar of my skull. The class met in the oldest building on campus, filled with crooked staircases and tiny fireplaces. On the syllabus were just three poets: TS Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Elizabeth Bishop. Much discussion revolved around the fact that Bishop wasn’t religious like the other two. So why, our provocative professor slyly queried, had she presented her this way to us?
Our professor was a bohemian Jewish intellectual who dressed in tweed skirts and LL Bean boots, her wild hair looking like it hadn’t been combed since Woodstock. I never gave her an answer then. I mainly stared at the floor in class. But I did like the clarity of the poems. I was doing the reading, and it helped that the font of Bishop’s poems had been made larger, which I assumed was done because she had written fewer poems than most. There were religious allusions, but the whole tenor of her work was secular. There were no traces of the homosexuality or the alcoholism that our professor kept gingerly referencing. She told us Bishop had an exotic lover in Brazil named Lota. The class laughed. Homosexuality was always cause for a good laugh. Maybe, the professor coaxed us, Bishop had faith in poetry, in the clarity and accuracy she strove for there, and could that serve as a kind of religion to her, a way of navigating the world?
We studied her poem, ‘Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,’ which ends:
Everything only connected by ‘and’ and ‘and.’
Open the book. (The gilt rubs off the edges
of the pages and pollinates the fingertips.)
Open the heavy book. Why couldn’t we have seen
this old Nativity while we were at it?
—the dark ajar, the rocks breaking with light,
an undisturbed, unbreathing flame,
colorless, sparkles, freely fed on straw,
and, lulled within, a family of pets,
—and looked and looked our infant sight away.
She seemed to be coming at faith sideways, acknowledging it out of the corner of her eye, the nativity scene reduced to ‘a family of pets’, which I loved. This felt perfectly natural to me.
Through the prism of this poem, I recognized my stalled life: I’d read my way through much turmoil. Reading had always been my escape hatch. Now, in college, much of life – the fraternity parties, the dating, my parents drinking, my drinking – confounded me. So I didn’t need to be prompted more than twice to ‘Open the book’ and ‘pollinate’ my fingertips.
I joined the literary magazine staff, and began trying to write my own poems. I would type them out on a manual typewriter and then cross out the lines. It was like painting more than writing, I suppose, just mixing colors. Something in the action of saying and erasing, saying and erasing, gave me solace, and perhaps a deeper solace even than reading. This private, useless act aided me immensely. I was often drinking, whole bottles of wine now, sometimes a bottle of Vodka, the steel clarity of that clear liquid giving me some semblance of peace as I barricaded myself against my impulses. The call of the drink increased, and it began, quickly, to overtake the poetry, until I gave up writing altogether – my ‘infant sight’ shrinking, becoming jaundiced.
Though my writing dissipated, I kept reading Bishop. The amber and umber leaves fell across the window panes and blew against the Andrew Wyeth houses. Students started dating one another, but I dated no one. I remained alone with Bishop. Her poems had a slow, burning effect on me, unlike the immediacy I was used to from reading Sylvia Plath in high school. I was drawn to Bishop’s sound and rhythm first, before I captured her meanings.
One element of that sound was something you might call ‘Yankee’. I associated that term with the Northeast, where my mother’s people came from and where I was now enrolled in college. The Yankee diction meant: keep a distance from your neighbors, recall Robert Frost’s stone fences, allow people space, keep your guard up. Yankee meant Anglo-Saxon. Yankee meant houses on Cape Cod and Harvard legacies and trust funds. My mother wanted to be part of it. She liked the Yankee mentality even though she was Lithuanian, the child of immigrants. She wanted to assimilate. She wanted to pass. My mother would always say, ‘We are private people, Spencer.’ She repeated this phrase about privacy to me like a chant, and during my weekly calls home I could imagine her shaking her head like Katherine Hepburn all the way back in Minnesota. Privacy manifested itself in her muteness over anything personal: the screaming inside our living room was never to be mentioned outside the home, or even really to her. Certainly I was never to ask her about why she had once slid down a wall in tears. I was taught that people would respect repression more than confession. Because of my mother I associated privacy with dignity. Bishop’s poems supported this private way of living.
Bishop said proudly that she believed in closets and more closets. She said that she wished the confessional poets would keep their revelations to themselves. Her poems built pressure and force through strenuous evasion. Her silences riveted me: she seemed to be all about what she wasn’t saying, which neatly encapsulated what I knew growing up. And the way I was living now.
I read and reread ‘Crusoe in England,’ where Bishop writes of sad, lonely Robinson Crusoe and his famous encounter with Friday:
Just when I thought I couldn’t stand it
another minute longer, Friday came.
(Accounts of that have everything all wrong.)
Friday was nice.
Friday was nice, and we were friends.
If only he had been a woman!
I wanted to propagate my kind,
and so did he, I think, poor boy.
He’d pet the baby goats sometimes,
and race with them, or carry one around.
—Pretty to watch; he had a pretty body.
There it was – the pretty body, pretty to watch. Out in the open. Was describing gay male attraction a way of keeping some distance from her lesbianism? Coyly she kept it all private, and yet she managed to write about it even so. As soon as I had what amounted to a sexuality I started throwing my voice like this, forcing my listener to focus on anything but me. When I saw this poem I knew exactly what Bishop was doing. She loved to track the mind in action. And here with her repetitions of Friday being nice (has nice ever been used better in a poem?) I saw a mind hesitating to say the truth the way my own mind hesitated when I felt attracted to men and said I wasn’t. ‘Pretty to watch; he had a pretty body.’ I saw that line as a mumble, exactly the way I would have mumbled it to myself as I woke from my bed, having had another wet dream about my muscular, hairy roommate. I lived under a tyranny of watching, of being drawn to pretty bodies that the world told me were the wrong gender.
Bishop became a manual for me as I entered college. The poems had friendly, unobtrusive sounds such as:
Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.
I appreciated her plain chant. These words didn’t make demands on me. I knew that child drawing inscrutable houses. I was that child. I knew how to plant tears rather than shed them openly.
I went beyond the assigned poems and read more, read what scant biographical information I could. I learned that despite all the prodding from fellow poets May Swenson and Adrienne Rich, Bishop couldn’t bring herself to publish about her lesbian self. What she left was a set of poems that held back and that drew me in. Slowly.
In adapting her life to her gay self, Bishop never had to contend with parental disappointment. By the time she was six her father had died and her mother had gone to a mental asylum. Bishop never saw her mother again. In her sixties, she received a prize from a university in Nova Scotia. She sat on the stage. Over the heads of the audience, across the street, was the mental hospital where her mother had died when she was twenty-three. Over the decade since her mother’s death, Bishop had tried to find out more about her mother, but it proved challenging. No one knows if she managed to find out much. The clinical records state: she threw her clothes out the window, she ate plaster from the walls, she sat unspeaking for days. Whatever Bishop learned she didn’t discuss it. Bishop said that she didn’t dote on the fact she had a classically horrible childhood. She was like my mother that way, not wanting to draw attention to what makes us vulnerable. My mother always said, ‘Everyone has tragedy, you don’t need to go looking for it.’
A few years before her death, Bishop said to a former student, Millie Nash, that maybe she’d been better off without a mother. She hadn’t had to deal with a mother. Her early independence did give her a certain freedom with her sexuality. In the 1950s and 1960s, still such a repressed time for homosexuals, she lived her private life as she pleased, with many lesbian affairs. She tried to regulate her binge drinking as best she could.
Closeted, alienated, drinking – I found myself aligning with all of this in Bishop. But Bishop hadn’t dealt with the disappointment of a mother. I was at a sorry crossroads with mine, the bittersweet separation perhaps all mothers and sons have, where I seemed to disappoint her and she disappointed me, in the way we all sooner or later disappoint each other. That disappointment churned in my head and stomach every phone call home. I was growing unexplainable to her. I gave vague answers to all her questions. There set in a rift and a cliff. She’d ask if I had a girlfriend. Sometimes when she called me her words slurred. I read more.
As the first term closed, we read ‘In The Waiting Room’:
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
I gave a sidelong glance
—I couldn’t look any higher—
at shadowy gray knees,
trousers and skirts and boots
and different pairs of hands
lying under the lamps.
I knew that nothing stranger
had ever happened, that nothing
stranger could ever happen.
In the poem, a child Elizabeth shyly tries to take in the pendulous breasts of the naked African women in a National Graphic. As I read this poem, I knew the shame creeping into the poem, the way it felt to be a child a little too fascinated with the same sex. Now, at eighteen years old, I could scarcely look in a mirror, much less a magazine. If I was what I thought I was, what Bishop thought she was, then I needed to murder me. The thought kept coming, with the plodding, simple logic of Bishop’s three beat tri-meter lines. The more I repressed those naked men, the more they appeared. But if I killed the person I could kill the sex.
I looked out through the white-trimmed window in my dorm room. The window had six panes on top and six on the bottom. There was nothing more to say. Pine cones near the window swung like corpses.
The term ended. My suitcases were packed so I could spend Christmas with my family. Up and down the hallways of Moore Hall students planned, exchanged presents, laughed on the phone with their parents, waving plane tickets. It was night. I walked out the front door and went to the graveyard. I took a bottle of Southern Comfort with me, and a bottle of sleeping pills, and I emptied them both into my mouth. I lingered in the snow with the graves. I passed out. As my cure started to take effect some muscle inside of me reacted. Some voice said, ‘Get up!’ I took myself to the infirmary, dizzy, told the nurses I was sick, went into the toilet and vomited all that I had swallowed.
The next day I went home for Christmas break. I’d rarely changed my clothes the whole first term. I had razor cuts on my wrists, which I kept covered with the torn, stained sleeves of the one sweatshirt I wore. The sweatshirt had the name of my prep school, Breck, in faded letters, and had bleach and food stains on it. A widening chasm had grown up between my mother’s emotional world and mine: her attention was divided between a series of real estate interests and the pressing need to buy decorations for the tree. As a small boy we’d been close confidantes – now we struggled. She sensed something was wrong. I’d become monosyllabic. She must have felt helpless. What could she do?
One night I went out with old high-school friends to a movie, and my mother read my diary. She confronted me, sobbing, when I returned, but it wasn’t the suicidal thoughts that had brought her to tears.
‘Are you a homosexual?’ she asked. Her tone was filled with disgust, and hatred. Or was it love cloaked in fear?
‘No,’ I said.
‘They tie each other up in Greenwich Village and have anal sex,’ she screamed. She looked like she was watching a horror film. She didn’t know what to do with me. I didn’t know what to do with me. My father said nothing. I thought he had pity for me but I wasn’t sure. His silence widened the space between us. I wanted to disappear.
In the hopes of fixing me, we as a family agreed I would see a psychologist when I returned to Bowdoin. There was the idea in the air that if I really did think I was homosexual, a psychologist might be able to talk me out of it. I was like a puppy that just needed to be trained. There was hope in my mother’s voice now. Although I still denied the charge of homosexual, I was hopeful too. Maybe I could be changed. Maybe I could be like everyone else. Maybe.
The college psychologist was from Argentina, in his mid-fifties, but still as dashingly handsome as a bullfighter. He had a fairly heavy accent and mispronounced words and forgot others, which, considering our topic of conversation, added a heightened level of comedy to our sessions. I sensed that he wasn’t understanding everything I was saying. We sat in a little room in the infirmary, mostly taken up with his bicycle and various bicycle parts.
My heart sank about one minute into our first meeting when I realized I wasn’t going to say the word ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’, and neither was he. There was no book in his office resembling anything that might be helpful. We were going to pretend like my homosexuality didn’t exist.
Our conversation was laughably leaden. We were like two very bad actors in a college play.
‘How you?’ he would say.
‘Fine,’ I would respond, my body language hopelessly awkward and robotic.
‘Your mother had spoken to me and said you try to attempt suicide.’
‘How are you now?’
‘Do you want to commit suicide now?’
This was the caveman-like level of our communication. The sessions were completely useless.
In a year or two everyone would start dying of AIDS. But we didn’t know that in his office. What we knew was silence, elaborate and subtle and vast. What I knew was an avalanche of shame. He was married to one of the tenured professors on the psychology faculty and I began to suspect this job had been given to her handsome husband as a sort of compensation: something to keep him busy between his bicycle races.
Instead of curing my homosexuality our sessions seemed to provoke it. I found myself drawn to his dark skin, deep black Latin eyes and muscular build – especially the lower half of his body, those thighs and buttocks tightly encased in his pants as if with shrink-wrap. I had to repress the attraction every time I looked at him. This wasn’t how The Bell Jar had gone. There, Esther Green, Sylvia Plath’s stand-in, had returned to Smith after her dramatic suicide attempt triumphantly. In her real life Plath resurrected herself nicely, galvanized to embrace a new life in college with her dyed-blonde pageboy bob. They wrote her up in the newspapers. My suicide attempt had generated no star treatment. I failed my classes first term. To the college I was an embarrassment. I was going backwards. Drinking called me.
The psychologist kept telling me to enjoy my life. His hands were full of grease and chains. He had started working on his bicycle during our sessions, and as he worked he would hardly look at me. Something Bishop once wrote to her physician, Any Baumann, began to haunt me: ‘I feel some sort of cycle settling in.’ So it was going with me, a cycle of drinking to get through the days. After our sessions I would go back to my room and pour myself a glass of wine to blot out what I’d been feeling: the attraction, the unspoken homosexuality.
James Merrill said Bishop was always impersonating an ordinary woman. Her years were spent carrying out those impersonations: Vassar girl, a woman smiling with perfectly manicured nails, then wrapped in furs like a Scarsdale matron, later a woman with blue eye-shadow in a light blue pantsuit. I too was eager to be somebody who could pass. I was now doing my best to curb my theatrical gestures. Intellectually I constructed a genuine interest in girls. Sometimes it worked. When it did not, which happened more often than not, I felt I did not want to linger much longer on the planet.
I told my parents I was better, and they seemed to believe me. I seemed to believe it too. I stopped seeing the psychologist soon after we started our sessions, having decided the answer to my problem lay in drink rather than therapy, but I would still see him zooming around the campus on his bike. I would still have to repress my fantasies about the two of us naked. I began to drink more and more heavily to cope, and it took a toll. I found myself unable to make it into the classroom. I was going down some dark tunnel. I kept lurching into fumbled romances with women, pushing myself towards normalcy, but I was so drunk they became nurses instead of lovers.
In a moment of sobriety in the dining hall at Coles Tower, someone said Wesleyan was the most liberal of the schools in the Northeast. I thought that if I changed schools, I might change too.
My junior and senior year were spent at Wesleyan. I rented a small room in a wooden clapboard house with three other students across from a little liquor store called Sunshine Farms.
Every night I walked through the door of Sunshine Farms and the owner said hello a little too knowingly.
‘I will have four bottles of the white wine,’ I said, and felt the same guilt I used to feel when I shoplifted Playgirl.
These wine bottles were Italian, had a colorful label on them like lovely Florentine stationery: green and rose squiggles with some gold strewn throughout. When my housemate, Laura, moved in at the beginning of the year, her parents had bought her one of these bottles to celebrate. Two or three nights in, I drank everything in the house, including Laura’s bottle. The next morning I left her a note: ‘Dear Laura, I am so sorry for drinking the bottle that your parents gave you. As soon as Sunshine Farms opens I will replace it.’ And I did.
Laura never drank that bottle. I did, every night. About a month later, I decided to stop writing her notes and bought a case of bottles instead. Then I drank the case. I must have replaced Laura’s bottle at least one hundred times.
I had found myself a girlfriend. Maybe I could add to the happy world of heterosexuality after all, and leave my parents pleased, or so I hoped. K and I met at a party in one of the many dark tunnels that connected the dormitories at Wesleyan. She was kind and smart, the two qualities I love most. I thought all my problems would be solved if I drank my way through the sex with her. I bet myself I could do it. And maybe I would enjoy it too. I was not un-attracted to her. And I figured the drinking would kill or subdue the part of my brain packed full of gay desire.
K studied classics and looked almost exactly like Patti Smith. She would translate Catullus until dawn. She was willowy with smudged mascara that gave her a raccoon look. Night after night in her bed we explored, aided by my inebriation. The record needle skipped on a song by the British band The The, singing This is the day your life will surely change. In a dirty crumbling student house with the paint coming off the ceiling – This is the day – I drank enough to kill an ox.
One morning I woke in K’s bed blinded, and she had to take me to the hospital. Somehow in my drinking I had managed to rip my corneas. ‘Have you been drinking?’ the doctor asked. I said, ‘No, not much,’ yet even I could smell the pungent acrid tang of alcohol pushing through my pores.
After a week of healing my eyesight restored, and I managed to make it to the library. I went to the room where they kept the records and played the voice of Robert Lowell, Bishop’s best literary friend. Lowell read ‘Skunk Hour,’ which he had dedicated to her. I grimaced when he got to the part about the fairy decorator:
And now our fairy
decorator brightens his shop for fall;
his fishnet’s filled with orange cork,
orange, his cobbler’s bench and awl;
there is no money in his work,
he’d rather marry.
No money, a pathetic effeminate sales clerk: now that, emphatically, I did not want to become.
My life at that time was a series of evenings in which I was carried out of parties and thrown into bushes. In the early evening I would suddenly fall down on the dance floor to the tune of the Go-Gos singing brightly, or the Smiths at one of their sarcastic dirges.
People started telling me not to call them back. People stopped inviting me to parties. People said: ‘I saw you.’ And I would have to wonder what it was they saw. ‘I have a red light that goes on and tells me to stop,’ my mother told me over the telephone, talking about the drinking. Red light. Where was my red light? Never had such a light. Only green. I did not mention anything about girlfriends or the poems I scribbled. The list of subjects we did not discuss always seemed to be lengthening. What had happened to us?
One night I drank all of Laura’s wine bottles, and suddenly I was in the street in front of Sunshine Farms. My blue terry-cloth bathrobe was half off, mud on my naked body. I’d dyed my hair white like Billy Idol. Mascara dripped from my eyes. I had a cigarette in my hand. My self-hate and repression had gone mad. I exploded out in my drunkenness now with an aggressive flamboyance, more auto-da-fé than drag queen. I dared anyone to stop me. My tongue grew vicious. I was Lear’s fool breaking down the fourth wall. I ran pell-mell into the audience.
‘We are going to have to take you in. This is the tenth time the neighbors have complained about the noise here,’ said the policeman.
Crapulous thing, I said something unintelligible.
‘Listen, the neighbors have called again, we’ve received three calls a week from them.’
A record skipped from the bedroom above –Marianne Faithful singing ‘What Have You Done for Beauty’s Sake.’
The officer gave me a fine and retreated. I’d drunk my way through the dark night and now the dawn began to push its tints into every little thing. The silverware shone; the telephones gleamed; the mirrors glinted; the windows flashed. The sun rose and I belonged nowhere. The little house in front of me looked forlorn. I trudged up the stairs as my roommates woke to their studies, and I recalled the night in pieces: naked, the yellow Sunshine Farms sign, the terrible thought that I would need to apologise to Laura again, replace her bottles, and what on earth was it I’d said? K, who had been keeping pace with my drinking and still managing to keep her classics grades high, had begun to step back into the shadows. I was alone with all this in my bedroom. The lawnmowers would soon start. Paperboys were throwing papers onto doorsteps. Birds rang in the trees. I had a set of crossed out poems next to the typewriter. How would I ever enter this world?
The phone rang. The receiver shook a little in its cradle and the noise jangled me as if I had launched myself into a circus ride. The sky was full of colors already and I was drained of them. It was my aunt from Tennessee. My aunt who never called me. I held the receiver with one hand. In the other was the tattered fine I’d been given for disturbing the peace.
‘Spencer, how are you?’ There was a pause, maybe she was smoking. Her Southern accent expanded the syllables so they dripped like candlewax.
‘What is it?’ I said.
‘John Steven is dead,’ she said, and perhaps she herself was surprised to hear herself say this news so plainly, so flatly. There are certain sets of words that change and rearrange the world. And those four words certainly did that. John Steven, my cousin, my kin, the same age as me, had been having trouble with his drinking too. That much I knew. Someone had wanted to get him into treatment. His storyline tumbled through my mind from pieces of telephone conversations I’d had over the years. We hadn’t seen each other much.
‘What are you saying?’ I asked. My bed was still wet with last night’s urine and vomit. I was sweating. I shook.
‘We don’t know. Grandpa Reece is very upset as you can imagine. Your Aunt Pattie is beside herself, and your Uncle . . . Well –’
‘What happened?’ I asked. ‘What happened to John?’
‘He was in a bar, down there in Florida. His sister Kathy said he saw somethin’ he wasn’t supposed to see. I don’t know what. He – well they – well, some men I guess took him to the river down there in Saint Augustine. He’d started drinking again and his sister has small children and she said he couldn’t stay there if he drank and I guess he drank and then, well. He went to this bar I guess and they drowned him. Aunt Pattie is beside herself. Your Uncle George had trouble identifying the body. They think the police are involved somehow. They don’t know who did it. They don’t know.’
Her Southern accent carried the sadness of the American South as I had always imagined it: the slow way the hours passed, the relatives gone mad with drink, the long ballad of surrender. Slowly my aunt’s words came into that morning and took dominion over time – the seconds, the minutes. In the Connecticut air, the birds flew through car exhaust.
The murder went unsolved. Thirty years later a relative told me in passing that John might have been gay-bashed. This casual off-hand speculation shocked me. I’d never considered that when Mary Sue was on the phone with me in Middletown. I’m fairly certain the word ‘gay-bashed’ was something we never said in 1984. John had been undetectably gay, rough and tough, unlike me.
What happened to him that night? Was the bar dark? How did the men grab John? Had he said something? Had he touched someone? Did he yearn for love that night the way we all yearn for love? Had the men said something? I began to see it and what I saw I can’t unsee.
The men yanked John. They ripped out his beautiful hair in patches. They punched him in the stomach. They held him down. They kicked him in the head. They broke his fingers. They broke his ribs. They broke his legs. They broke his teeth. They grunted. They spit. They laughed. They dragged the body, and the body picked up trash and thorns and burrs. The laughter of the men mixed with the sound of the wind moving the leaves in the sassafras trees. Dirt was on John. He pleaded. Gravel was shoved into his eyelids. He had sand in his throat. Blood came out of his ears. They held his beautiful head under the mucky water until John screamed no more, until the last mercurial orb of oxygen bubbled out from his lips. The men walked away. The corpse floated. The world went on. The men went on.
After John’s death my drinking worsened. I would drink three or four drinks before I went to parties so it could seem like I was only drinking as much as everyone else at the party. I started drinking after the party too, with a sense of release that I wasn’t being watched or monitored. I drank Scotch ‘neat’, now, just ice. I could drink an entire bottle of the stuff. The side effect of this was that my stomach was so full of acid the following morning that I couldn’t keep food down. I grew thin and my face bloated. When I was drunk I was dramatic and gleeful, unlike my shy self. This was fun for others to watch, but at other moments I skittered into disasters: I fell down stairs, I picked a fight with a friend over something I couldn’t remember afterwards, I babbled incoherently into phones to people who would cut the calls short and leave me talking to a dead line. Bishop said to her psychiatrist, Ruth Foster: ‘If only I didn’t feel I were that dreadful thing an alcoholic.’ Her dread matched mine.
Sometimes the drinking did work. On those nights it was like nuclear energy – all the lights went on. I kept drinking, trying to get back to that magically connecting moment, but it happened less and less often. And at the center of my drinking now swirled the bloated body of John. I kept thinking about his drinking, where that had led him. Uncle George said he couldn’t recognize him. The body was purple, swollen up. He could only recognize him through his teeth. Aunt Pattie had started seeing him in grocery stores. She said that he was speaking to her through the birds.
The drinks I took led me into a kind of hell. All the charming phrases and flirty behavior diminished. More often than not I ended up ignored.
One night the beautiful white Congregational Church stared down at me from the top of the green. Strict prim traditional Yankee New England was all around me. I went to a fraternity party at Chi Psi, and I could barely stand. The men in the fraternity were muscular and beautiful in their polo shirts. The place had an animal stench of sweat mixed with sweet colognes, and K was in the library reading Horace. I smoked a cigarette with a gesture more Bette Davis than Gary Merrill, lingering too long in my leering look at one of the men. The young fraternity brother had biceps like a cougar’s haunches, his chest was large, and erect nipples could be seen through the tight shirt like nails sticking out from a hunk of wood. I salivated.
‘God damn faggot,’ he said when he caught my look. He came over and punched me in the face. He and his cohort with all their horse-muscle threw me out onto the lawn, and my body lay splayed out much as John’s must have been. The town spun. I couldn’t speak to anyone about what had happened, not even K. Muteness deepened in me as my cheekbone stung from the bruise I woke up to the next day.
Even if I was at the most bohemian liberal college in the world it still could not undo the level of self-hate that mixed in with each neat Scotch I threw back.
The one creative writing class I took at Wesleyan was taught by Annie Dillard. She was already an acclaimed nature writer, pregnant for the first time, close to forty, hair dyed Marilyn Monroe blonde. She chain-smoked Merits. I was amazed by this woman. We all were. She’d won the Pulitzer for her Thoreau-like book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She radiated intelligence like an electrical storm. Gave off wisdom like heat. Her wit whipped around that room like a cyclone and we almost had to hold our notebooks down.
Between classes, I slyly went to the Olin Library on campus and found her work in the stacks. I read:
It is a weakening and discoloring idea, that rustic people knew God personally once upon a time – or even knew selflessness or courage or literature – but that it is too late for us. In fact, the absolute is available to everyone in every age. There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less.
She bowled me over. Her verbs! And how she ended that sentence ‘never a less’. The text sparkled in the stacks. The idea, too, of something ‘holy’ whispered to me, although the idea of religion still felt completely remote to me then. Of all the creative writing teachers on the planet, this one landed in front of me like a space probe.
At the time creative writing wasn’t held up as a major in undergraduate programs. Not knowing where to place us, the university gave our class a room in the chemistry department. Perched between Bunsen burners, Dillard sat in front of us like a Greek goddess. We brought in poems like offerings.
More and more I longed to be a writer. How to get there? In those classes a new determination began to stir within me. Where that came from I wasn’t sure. Some kind of self-awareness had sparked. Dillard seemed to believe in me too, although I wasn’t sure what that was based on. All I knew was that I was sitting before a woman who had accomplished what I wanted to accomplish. That was my absolute.
I desperately wanted to communicate something true on paper, something about the way my life swung between buttoned-up repressions and drunken outbursts. I tried valiantly to stay on top of our assignments despite my drinking. Even though the class met in the afternoons I sometimes had trouble getting there, and when I did I smelled as rank as a sticky bar room floor. My favorite assignment, which we did weekly, was to type out the poems of the poets we liked so we could feel the words go through us and onto the paper. I felt that if I kept typing Bishop’s poems some of her brilliance might rub off on me.
Then I read some more of Dillard’s writing. On Christmas break her memoir, American Childhood, came out. The sentences and paragraphs practically burnished. Like Bishop’s Yankee sensibility, the memoir steered clear of anything shameful. Keep your guard up, the book seemed to say. I followed her example, and kept trying to write.
By a miracle I graduated from Wesleyan in 1985. I felt a perfect failure, and the night of my graduation I drank to black out, and remember now only brief glimpses of things: a set of dark green trees, a person pulling me out of a ditch, making out with a man or a woman, I can’t be sure which, pulling the fire alarm in someone’s dormitory, hitting my head on a rock, waking up with a scab and blood caked on my cheek. No, The Bell Jar this was not. No Mademoiselle scholarship. No Fulbright to Cambridge. No poems in the New Yorker. No typing my thesis on Dostoevsky while on the roof of my dorm to improve my tan.
I didn’t know what to do next. I had applied to a graduate program in England to study the poems of George Herbert, but there was a fear in me. How long could I keep bluffing my way through classes? The way I drank I was fortunate if my academic work was mediocre. What good was it to study? Would they ever take me? And why was there still this persistent urge to want to die?
I applied too to the Breadloaf Writers Conference. Dillard encouraged me, and wrote me a letter of recommendation. I was accepted. Before I left Dillard puffed on her cigarette and said: ‘Spencer, if you want to write, and I hope you will, study something else.’ This last zen koan of hers seeded in me the confidence that would keep me writing, wherever I went.
When I arrived at Breadloaf I was struck by a woman standing in the lobby – blonde, tall, young, smart – a Piero della Francesca angel, attentive, listening, glittering with a golden aura, coming with some bright news. Maybe because most of the people were older, or because of the somewhat mischievous glint in her eye, I found her irresistible. I immediately introduced myself. She said her name was Katherine Buechner: quickly, I learned she was the daughter of Frederick Buechner, a theologian and writer of religious books I’d heard of rather than read. We were fast friends.
She was twenty-seven, and contemplating being a minister. A woman considering being a minister in those days was novel and brave. I admired her for it. I wondered for the first time about ministry, about what that word exactly meant. She told me Howard Nemerov, who was her instructor there, had called her ‘another one of those smart-ass Bennington girls.’ Her head titled back as she said this, in a kind of, well, Yankee way – deprecatory and convivial at once. I tried to mimic the gesture.
Most of Breadloaf I spent with Katherine. We became inseparable, together through the barn dances and evenings in the old rockers rolling in the twilight breeze and the cocktail hours and conversations with casual references to where Robert Frost did this or that, where Carson McCullers had sat, what Anne Sexton had done. Through it all Katherine was not drinking. This struck me. As did the way she never said much about it. She just did not do it.
One night I got separated from her, as drinkers often separate themselves out from sober people. I got so drunk that I woke up at a desk where I seemed to be writing a poem, only to find I was not in my room but a stranger’s. I don’t remember if it was a man or a woman. I don’t remember what they said. I had to be escorted back to my room – or did I stumble there myself? When I got up the next morning I was horrified. In the long breakfast room at a long table, my eyes all puffed up under dark sunglasses, I said to Katherine: ‘Why don’t you drink?’ My headache was intense. My eyes felt like they were being unscrewed from my head. I kept glancing up, worried I would run across someone from the night before.
‘It was a problem for me,’ Katherine said. Her tone was casual.
‘What do you mean?’ I asked. The clock with the painted face and roman numerals clicked behind us. Dust increased on the court cupboard with the inlaid ash and maple wood.
‘Just couldn’t stop once I started,’ she said.
We moved to the lobby. The writers had gone off to workshops and we skipped our appointments to poke and prod poems like lab animals. We sat in two tattered armchairs where hundreds of other writers must have sat, the butterscotch upholstery molted onto the small of our backs. I thought of what Bishop had said about her drinking: it ‘had to stop’ followed by her hopeful statement, ‘It can be done.’ Aspiring writers passed us, talking about workshops and agents.
‘Now I go to meetings,’ Katherine told me. It all seemed so simple. Tall spruce darkened in the distance, hayfields deepened to orange, speckled with little bits of brown. Fresh mountain water sluiced through the dolomite and granite rocks. Fall was coming, things were rolling up, things were being put away, vegetables canned, hay bales picked up.
‘You really don’t drink anymore? And it’s okay?’ I asked. I was thinking of my parents drinking every night in their living room, how the drinks mounted and mounted and I watched, mute. How necessary it all seemed. Then I pushed that thought away.
She smiled at me with mysterious welcome. I wasn’t ready to stop drinking, but her example held me. Some bright news on that Vermont mountaintop had been declared, and I had noted it.
Later that year I was living in a thirty-three-story high-rise in Minneapolis. My parents were nearby, and I was visiting them regularly, despite my sexuality remaining awkwardly off topic. They emptied countless wine glasses and spoke about the Republican party with droning tedium. When I visited their living room, bottles would come and go. I drank with them one night: we sounded like we were underwater. We got maudlin, laughed, held our heads up, but I felt some deep portentous and ominous layer of dread. Would this be how my life would go? My brother disappeared from the room.
He had told me he had begun to measure our parents’ intake by marking the bottles with his pencil, because he didn’t believe what they said they were drinking measured up with what they were actually drinking. My father’s words slurred one or two drinks in. Five or six drinks in my mother was yelling.
‘You’re chicken shit!’ she’d say to my father. Her hair was frosted and she’d put on weight. What had happened to their enthusiasm? What had happened to the woman I knew who laughed like a hyena in her leather pantsuits and turquoise jewelry? I missed her. What happened to their joy in singing along with the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show? Still, they always trundled off to bed together, waking up to work and busy themselves and read and then repeat – the same evening all over again. My mother never laughed in a carefree manner anymore. My father looked defeated. I kept what I saw to myself and tried to unsee it. This erasure of former affability happened fast. I didn’t want to connect it with what was happening to me. Meanwhile, they paid my rent.
Miraculously (and that is the right word), I was accepted for the MA on Herbert at the University of York – Herbert was one of Bishop’s favorites: I love imagining her getting up from her chair and dancing to samba records in Brazil, maybe a little tipsy, while in her purse were her lipsticks, cigarettes, a fifth of Gin, and her marked-up paperback of Herbert. It was a brand new MA, so I figured the professors must have mercifully overlooked my spotty college academic records, the grades that looked like a fever chart. It was another chance.
In the year before I went to England I tried out various jobs. Each one ended a week later: I would call in sick, unable to return, my whole body aching. I’d smell like garbage left out too long in a hot kitchen. I soured with Scotch and beer sweat. I was a telephone answerer, a stage manager, a substitute teacher, a volunteer with the mentally handicapped.
My apartment was on the top floor. The elevator, the carpeted hall, the freshly painted walls, the modern windows – all this was lost on me. I drank alone every night. I woke up to weird, unexplainable bruises. I canceled appointments. I threw bottles down the long garbage shoot before the evening’s drinking began as a way to stop myself from drinking too much. I wandered out to the liquor stores and replaced what I’d thrown out. I staggered through the streets.
In modern Minneapolis, with all its clean sidewalks and cool glass buildings, there was a gay bar called the Saloon on Hennepin Avenue. Neon lassoes decorated the walls and the walls were constructed like stables. I would stumble in late at night, once the drinking had started. The songs of Annie Lennox and Boy George and Bronski Beat played through the darkness, ‘Karma Chameleon’ and ‘Missionary Man’ and ‘Smalltown Boy’. I danced by myself. I hoped to connect with a man. I swerved. The men made space around me. The alcohol altered me, made me presentable, or so I thought. I did incredible dance moves, more seizure than Baryshnikov. I claimed I was alive and available. Cry boy cry. Then I fell down. I wet my pants. I vomited in a sort of burp that became a liquid the consistency of pudding. I wiped it away with my hand. The bouncers would help me up, and out. I lurched. I careened home alone.
My revulsion with myself accelerated. I ignored the mirror in the bathroom of the apartment. When I looked into it Lowell’s quote about the ‘fairy decorator’ haunted me. Shame ate me. If anyone commented on the possibility of my being gay I flipped into a rabid attack, or sunk into a glum stupor that would last for hours. Sometimes the only way I could navigate socially was to stop speaking to people that questioned me.
I called Katherine. I didn’t know what else to do. My soiled clothes were in the washing machine, my head throbbed. I was ready to try anything. I asked her about AA.
‘What do they do at those meetings?’
‘Talk,’ Katherine said.
She made it sound easy. Why then was sobriety so elusive to me? I was frightened of going. Bishop had been exposed to AA, but it never took. What if it didn’t take for me? Then what?
But Katherine encouraged me. I decided, after some time, that I would try. I dressed up, wore a pocket square in my sports jacket – an attempt to pass as affluently cozy and secure. I looked out the apartment window from thirty-three floors up, thinking of all the days blurred with hangovers, sending half-finished bottles whistling down the metallic garbage shoot. Cool, white stone, the Basilica of St Mary’s sat on the Minneapolis cityscape like a sundial. I needed repair.
The meeting was in a skyscraper downtown called the Piper Jaffrey building, sixty or so floors of sparkling blue glass. In a boardroom, at lunch hour, I found a group of alcoholics. A woman named Mary appeared. Who was she? A housewife? A businesswoman? I can’t recall now. She walked into the meeting as I was sitting down with coffee in a Styrofoam cup. She came to my side and said, ‘Glad to have you here.’ Her touch was genuine, soft, unlike what I had grown used to in bars. I raised my hand when they asked if there were any newcomers.
Another man, a stockbroker with red suspenders, turned to me. ‘Here, you might need this.’ He handed me a big blue book, a manual about the size of Bishop’s Complete Poems. On the wall was a large placard made of a shiny material like those maps they rolled down in geography class in high school. The paper crinkled and cracked. Twelve steps were outlined in boldface. God mentioned more than a few times. This did not repel me immediately. My associations with religion were fairly calming: my prep school, although Episcopal, had more Jews in it than Episcopalians, but I had never minded the prayers. My agnostic parents had always encouraged me to investigate. I wondered if this might be a cult. But if the embarrassment would stop, I was willing. My eyes darted. I questioned.
AA was a kind of family, people related through suffering and joy, and I was adopted immediately. People asked for my phone number and took it down. No one had done that in a while. When I could look at people I caught a glint of something close to pure glee mixed with a non-judgmental love. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d seen such a look. They wanted me. When was the last time someone wanted me?
Church before church, a glimpse of heaven, I stood in AA with my cup of coffee – jobless, jittery, handkerchiefed. In that AA huddle, I thought again of my cousin John. His face surfaced in the fluorescence of that first meeting, as I contemplated stopping, actually stopping. I heard his voice. I saw his bloated corpse floating down the river. I heard the plash and retreat of the men after they’d finished killing him.
A Bishop poem came to me. ‘Little Exercise.’
Now the storm goes away again in a series
Of small, badly lit battle-scenes,
Each in ‘another part of the field.’
Think of someone sleeping in the bottom of a rowboat
Tied to a mangrove root or the pile of a bridge;
Think of him as uninjured, barely disturbed.
I wanted to imagine John in that boat, barely disturbed. But it was impossible. He was dead. Now I, inexplicably, was in the boat. Saved, somehow, for the moment.
I was managing to stay sober. I stopped smoking. The air grew clearer. I began waking each morning without headaches, and I could now remember what had happened the night before. Embarrassment left me. There was a hint with my AA members, who were indeed a diverse lot – ex-cons, librarians, cops, secretaries, every color and sexual persuasion – that the awfulness of drinking was going to be replaced by cheerfulness. My world was expanding, moving out from the fixed world of books. My fingers were now ‘pollinated’ with coffee grinds, and often I had medallions for lengths of sobriety in my palms. Maybe my self-loathing would dissipate too. But sober or not, I was indelibly gay. That desire rooted in my groin, heart and cortex. That still shamed me.
I began wondering about Bishop’s apparent ease with the sexuality she kept off stage. She said to Lowell once, ‘I never met a woman I couldn’t make.’ Maybe it was her orphan status that allowed her to so easily live out her desire. Maybe the drink gave her confidence. It hadn’t helped me that way. Bishop always said how shy she was, but apparently she wasn’t when it came to sex. I, too, was shy. And without the booze, at least for the moment, I became shier. Without my drinks, sex, there in Minneapolis, with AIDS coming onto the scene, vexed me. How on earth could I approach it without first blacking out? With me, blackouts did not lead to sex, it led to passing out, to vomit. I’d been a dirty, ignored celibate who pissed on himself, and was attended to only by police.
I felt there, in AA, in land-locked Minneapolis, I was in an incomprehensible sea. The waves of voices, the coffee cups like buoy bells, the strange mystery of it. What would my life be like now that I did not have the ability to immerse myself in drink? I hoped AA might save me. And if I couldn’t make a go of AA, I felt then that I would need to take myself out of life once and for. Why sexuality continued to confound me I did not know. I did not know either why sobriety suddenly started burning in me there in Minneapolis. I still don’t know. I might never know.
Bishop died in 1979 from a cerebral aneurysm. Her young lover, Alice Methfessel, discovered her in her Lewis Wharf apartment in Boston’s North End when she went to pick her up for a dinner party. Alice was 36, Elizabeth 68. The last poem Bishop published in the New Yorker came posthumously. It was entitled ‘Sonnet’:
Caught – the bubble
in the spirit-level,
a creature divided;
and the compass needle
wobbling and wavering,
Freed – the broken
and the rainbow-bird
from the narrow bevel
of the empty mirror,
it feels like, gay!
I read the poem again there in my apartment in Minneapolis as I gathered my belongings, preparing to leave for England. The poem surprised me, and surprise I’ve come to see is the reaction I treasure most in poetry.
That narrow poem on a broken thermometer extended its hand to me, welcomed me, just as Katherine had at Breadloaf, as the AA members had in the skyscraper. She ended on that word, ‘gay’ with a ‘rainbow-bird’ above it. The prominence of the word ‘gay’ was finally creeping into the margins of the world. As I readied my steamer trunk and the Minneapolis skyscrapers glittered in the afternoon, San Francisco had adopted the rainbow flag for the gay community.
The sonnet had only two sentences, and each began with a past participle rather than a subject, emphasizing two actions, caught and freed, the way a bird can be, and the way any gay person can be, caught by society’s admonishing rules, but freed by the knowledge that they can be loved as they are. To be authentic then, a gay person had to break convention the way Bishop broke the sonnet.
I was beginning to feel my way to freedom. I placed Bishop’s poems gently into the steamer trunk. I tapped the cover the way one might tap the shoulder of an old friend. How on earth had she managed to balance her drinking with writing such lasting poems? What will, what despair, what exertion did she have to keep at bay to do what she did? The AA meetings had given me a way out of my daily embarrassment, of being a drunk, and maybe, just maybe, there would be more to life for me. Bishop’s poetry gave me something that I hadn’t found before. A space to breathe. A stance – the art moving through her, rather than about her – that would give me space to live and figure my way into a sexual life where I could claim to be ‘what it was I was’, the way I was starting to claim my sobriety.
This essay is an extract from a longer work, The Little Entrance: Devotions, an autobiography that contrapuntally is infused with the lives and poems of seven poets.
Images © Mary Jane Zapp